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NYC’s Carbon Neutral Initiative Tackles Zoning

Last summer, New York City mayor Eric Adams strutted out to announce his plan for a “better” NYC, which turned out to be an initiative dubbed “City of Yes.” Adams proceeded to rhapsodize about a series of citywide proposals which he would put in place to jumpstart the city’s economy, create equitable housing, and promote sustainability. But while Adams stood onstage for nearly an hour to make this announcement, he spent the bulk of his time waxing poetic, leaving critics to argue that the plan lacked specificity—especially when it came to achieving carbon neutrality. Of course, this was only the initiative’s elevator pitch (and Adams is a politician after all). But at its core, City of Yes aims to make New York City a carbon-neutral city in the near future, and on Monday, the public finally got a comprehensive look at how City of Yes will achieve its ambitious goals.

On March 20th, New York City residents were invited to tune into a public information session that featured a 49-page presentation detailing a number of reforms that will significantly impact the city’s buildings, which is responsible for a large portion of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. These reforms include the development of cleaner, more energy-efficient buildings, support for electric vehicles and micro-mobility, and a plan for a renewable energy grid. If you dive further along into the presentation, you realize that these reforms won’t be achievable without extensive changes to the city’s zoning laws.

Zone wars

The presentation is not shy about throwing NYC’s current zoning regulations under the bus as an “impediment” to Adams’ carbon neutrality dream. It’s not difficult to see why. New York City’s zoning laws can impede the development of sustainable infrastructure in several ways. For one, the city’s zoning regulations can limit the amount of usable space for sustainable infrastructure projects such as green roofs, rain gardens (a depressed area of landscape that collects rain water from the city streets and allows it to soak into the ground) or, as the proposal is particularly gunning for, solar panels. Restrictions on building heights and setbacks can limit the amount of space available for solar panels. Under NYC’s current zoning laws, rooftop solar canopies cannot cover more than 25 percent of the surface area of a flat roof, but City of Yes is looking to forgo that coverage requirement in order to maximize a rooftop’s solar energy output.

The current zoning regulations’ restrictions on solar panels also extends to the city’s parking areas. As of now, solar awnings aren’t always allowed to be installed near parking areas, because NYC’s zoning laws only allow a certain number of “obstructions” in off-street parking spaces. The new proposal seeks to tweak the language to deem solar canopies as a “permitted obstruction,” as the goal is to take advantage of the real estate in parking lots without taking any parking spots away by installing panels over the parking spaces.

Now that electric vehicle adoption is exploding nationwide, the need for NYC to expand their EV charging infrastructure is higher than ever. The problem is that chargers installed in accessory spaces (i.e. offices, retail buildings, or apartment complexes) are generally not open to the public. City of Yes aims to increase the number of EV accessory spaces by allowing property owners to designate up to 20 percent of their existing spaces as public to encourage EV charger sharing. 

A lot of the presentation goes over clarifying the linguistics. For instance, NYC’s zoning is supposed to allow permeable paving (a type of pavement material that allows rainwater to pass through it) on any paved surface. However, the language as written calls for the city’s Department of Buildings to review each proposed installation to determine whether it is appropriate, making the installation of permeable pavement in NYC more difficult. This may not sound like a big deal, but once you realize the impact permeable pavement can have on the environment, it’s easy to see the wasted opportunity. Permeable pavement reduces the amount of stormwater runoff that enters the local water supply, reduces flood risks, and tamps down on the urban heat island effect (which, as any New Yorker will tell you, is a bane in the summertime).

These are only a handful of the many zoning changes that have been proposed, but it’s clear that the Adams administration believes addressing zoning is critical to achieving the City of Yes. New York City has already committed to reduce its carbon emissions levels by 80 percent by 2050, and NYC already has some of the nation’s strictest laws to continue to decrease those emissions. Modifying zoning laws is a tool that local governments can use to regulate land use and development, and New York City is a major metropolitan area with a significant global influence. If the city is able to reach its carbon reduction goals by changing its zoning laws, it could set an example for other cities to follow suit. The City of Yes is in its early stages, and another public information session is scheduled for March 28th. If the initiative works, it could be an example to other cities of the importance of rethinking zoning when it comes to reducing carbon emissions on a large scale.

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